I’ve been thinking a lot about space and stories, lately. About fictional worlds and lived worlds, and whether the distance between the two is all that great. And how that all ties back to the idea of the Storyverse, something we talk about a lot here at Small Demons.
To us, the Storyverse is the shared space of narrative. It’s where the people, places and things from stories connect. I think of it as a world, really—one with its own history, its own rules, its own future. And what we’re doing right now over at Small Demons is a first step in illuminating and making accessible parts of that world.
This is an idea that has deep roots in fiction, of course. And with this post I want to trace a few of the writers and books that have shaped my thinking about this, that made it impossible to think of the details from stories in any other way. Where possible I’ll note the date of my first reading of each work, too, with a photo of the last page of the book (where I always mark the date I finished it).
Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths in Labyrinths. October 1993.
In The Garden of Forking Paths, Borges writes:
Ts’ui Pen must have said once: I am withdrawing to write a book. And another time: I am withdrawing to construct a labyrinth. Everyone imagined two works; to no one did it occur that the book and the maze were one and the same thing.
When I first I read this,I passed over this passage without much of a second thought. There were other stories by Borges I returned to over the years more often, like Kafka and His Precursors and Funes The Memorius. But I found a different Borges in 2010, a year in which I spent a lot of time talking to people—my team, our investors—about narrative as a shared world. About the Storyverse as a place you can travel through, one formed by the connections within and between stories. Like a maze. A Borgesian space, where “the book and the maze” are “one and the same thing.” Waiting to be unlocked.
Paul Auster, City of Glass, from The New York Trilogy. June 28, 2003.
A constant source of inspiration and melancholy for me. I visited City of Glass again in October 2010 when I discovered the graphic novel adaptation by Paul Karasik and David Mazzuchelli.
There’s just so much here. Uncovering a narrative by plotting paths through the city. A language invented from the scattered debris of New York. Identities found, lost, and shared.
Like this quiet moment in City of Glass that brings identity, space, and an obsession with detail altogether:
Once again, Stillman retreated to Riverside Park, this time to the edge of it, coming to rest on a knobby outcrop at 84th Street known as Mount Tom. On this same spot, in the summers of 1843 and 1844, Edgar Allen Poe had spent many long hours gazing out at the Hudson. Quinn knew this because he made it his business to know such things. As it turned out, he had often sat there himself.
Inspiration, because it’s very hard for me to think about space and narrative without returning to Auster. Melancholy, well, you need to read City of Glass to feel it for yourself.
William Gibson, Spook Country. September 12, 2011.
Influential in so many different ways. Like this passage, and the idea of resurfacing a past event upon a present space.
“Scott Fitzgerald’s heart attack,” suggested Alberto. “It’s down the street.”
She looked at the crowded, oversized, frantically ornate letters inked in jailhouse indigo down both his arms, and wondered what they spelled. “But he didn’t die then, did he?”
“It’s in Virgin,” he said. “By the world music.”
Or chapter 32, “Mr. Sippee.” Over the years I’ve found myself nearly immune to recommendations, but could not resist this. Narrative context just gets me.
She ate a dollar-fifty-nine barbecue beef rib with broasted potatoes off a paper plate on the trunk of the Passat, waiting for Alberto to turn up at Mr. Sippee, a blessed oasis of peace and mutual respect situated in a twenty-four-hour-convenience store at the Arco gas station at Blaine and Eleventh.
Close to the tents under the freeway, Mr. Sippee catered to an eclectic clientele of the more functionally homeless, sex workers of varied gender and presentation, pimps, police officers, drug dealers, office workers, artists, musicians, the map-lost as well as the life-lost, and anyone in serious search of the perfect broasted potatoes.
Naturally, we made a pilgrimage out to Mr. Sippee’s. Who wouldn’t want to keep company with that group? The potatoes, well, again, you’ll have to try for yourself.
And then there’s the W Hotel, Union Square. At 11 AM on April 3, 2011 I had an unsuccessful investor meeting there.
The meeting started late, and I had Spook Country with me. I was about half way through it, just pages away from a scene set in that same W Hotel:
Tito sped up, Oshosi noting that his pursuer was still gaining. He ran across Seventeenth without slowing. Saw the entrance to the restaurant, a revolving door. He ran on, to the hotel’s entrance, an airy lip of glass protruding to shelter it.
Into the restaurant, darting past the row of tables by the south-facing windows; past the unbelieving faces of diners, who an instant before had been lingering over desserts and coffees.
Tito chased through the W, me lingering over coffee. Story, reader and space connected. This is one of the reasons we catalogue so many Points of Interest mentioned in books, on Small Demons. To eventually be able to tie any place to its multiple meanings.
Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City. Late 90s, grad school. Like my dissertation, I never finished The Image of the City—so no last page, just this incomplete page of notes from an indeterminate past:
While my dissertation and notes are boxed away now, I’ve always kept Lynch close at hand (bottom right shelf in the library, where “books that matter but I’ve never finished” go). A few weeks ago in The Image of the City, I found a key to tie this journey through stories and space together. Early on Lynch talks about five “elements” that shape the image we have of cities. Here’s element two, “edges”:
Edges are the linear elements not used or considered as paths by the observer. They are the boundaries between two phases, linear breaks in continuity: shores, railroad cuts, edges of developments, walls.
Such edges may be barriers, more or less penetrable, which close one region off from another; or they may be seams, along which two regions are related and joined together.
“Related and joined together.” The physical space we live in, the Los Angeles that’s my home, and the Los Angeles that exists in stories. Related and joined together by an edge, “more or less penetrable.” A “wall” between everyday life and the Storyverse. What if you could pass easily between one and the other? What if at any point anywhere in LA, or any city, you knew its other history, its story beyond the edge?
Which brings me back to the inspiration for the title of this post, and one of my greatest passions, comic books. I’ve been reading and collecting comic books for thirty years now. The idea of moving between worlds is so prevalent in comic books, I could have written this entire post just about the comics that influenced me. And while the post would have been shorter—I’m told most people don’t have time to read, these days—it would also have artificially separated how ideas form. Comics, fiction, urban planning—they all come together and live in the same place in my head. So here we go, minus the date on the last page, because I never write in my comics.
Warren Ellis, Planetary. Planetary is amazing, and my describing it won’t do it justice. So much of where I’m hoping we go with Small Demons, in uncovering details that lead to a constant sense of wonder, is inspired by the twenty seven issues of that series. The characters, the narrative, the art, everything.
In the original proposal for the series, Ellis wrote about the relationship between the characters in Planetary, who exist in the background of a shared universe, to their more well known counterparts. The shared universe is the Wildstorm Universe, named after the publisher of Planetary.
PLANETARY just doesn’t work without the Wildstorm Universe there; without a known foreground, there cannot be an unknown background …
I read that proposal last week as I was digging through my Ellis back issues for inspiration. (And some guilty pleasure reading, like Issue 11 and The Last Shot, the platonic ideal of a bar.) The known foreground we live in, its unknown fictional background. The Sunset Boulevard we drive along, the Sunset Boulevard that opens up Spook Country.
There’s so much in Ellis about cities and stories, that I’m going to come back to in a separate post. Like Transmetropolitan, where the story begins with a descent into the city, and ends with an exit from it. Like The Authority, “Door,” and Jack Hawksmoor. And most recently, SVK and its London.
Neil Gaiman, A Tale of Two Cities. Issue 1 in Volume 8 in the collected trade paperbacks of The Sandman series, World’s End.
Gaiman’s Sandman deserves an entirely separate set of posts, as well—forthcoming. Even for here, I had a hard time picking between A Tale of Two Cities and Ramadan, the final tale in Volume 6, Fables and Reflections, set in Harun Al-Rashid’s Baghdad.
Here’s the passage from A Tale of Two Cities:
“Where are we?” asked Robert.
“In the city,” said the Old Man.
Robert shook his head. “I have walked the city all of my life. This is notthe city, although there are moments when I seem to recognize fragments of the city, in the manner of one recognizing a line from a familiar poem in a strange book.”
The Old Man took Robert by the shoulder.
“This is the city,” he repeated.
Perhaps a city is a living thing. Each city has its own personality, after all.
Los Angeles is not Vienna. London is not Moscow. Chicago is not Paris. Each city is a collection of lives and buildings and has its own personality.
“So if a city has a personality, maybe it also has a soul. Maybe it dreams.”
“That is where I believe we have come. We are in the dreams of the city. That’s why certain places hover on the brink of recognition; why we almost know where we are.”
“Hover on the brink of recognition.” On Lynch’s “edge,” the divide between one space and another.
If a city is a living thing, then the fictions we tell about them are potentially as much biography, as much history, as they are fantasy.
And so we collect, every day, a growing number of details about cities and how they appear in books, at Small Demons. To join together the Los Angeles, London and Vienna we live in, to the Los Angeles, London and Vienna from narrative. Their streets and boulevards, their points of interests, their beats.